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Expert: Asbestos poorly understood by public
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Expert: Asbestos poorly understood by public

Expert: Asbestos poorly understood by public
Photo Credit: Russell Mills

Expert: Asbestos poorly understood by public

Asbestos has made headlines as the demolition begins at a Tulsa school gutted by fire and known to have asbestos present, while Oklahoma has just received a new federal grant to help inspect schools for possible asbestos related problems.

But an expert says the public actually has little knowledge about what asbestos actually is and the dangers it may pose to public health.

Robert Swain owns and operates two businesses in Tulsa that deal with asbestos, training people how to inspect buildings and conducting inspections on them, including schools.

He tells KRMG practically everyone is exposed to asbestos and breathes it in on a daily basis.

"The general public is very ignorant about asbestos, in that they don't understand that they do breathe it from the ambient air outside every day," Swain said.

We simply don't breathe in concentrated levels of asbestos for prolonged periods, which is when the substance becomes dangerous.

"Typically those individuals that become sick as a result of it are those that have dealt with it day in and day out of their occupational exposure," he added.

Asbestos is a fibrous rock commonly found in nature and has been utilized by humans for literally thousands of years.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality says it has been used in more than "3000 different products such as textiles, paper, ropes, wicks, stoves, filters, floor tiles, roofing shingles, clutch facings, water pipe, cements, fillers, felt, fireproof clothing, gaskets, battery boxes, clapboard, wallboard, fire doors, fire curtains, insulation, brake linings, etc."

In fact, Swain says it's still perfectly legal to use asbestos in manufacturing.

For example, it's used in the manufacture of some types of floor tiles, brake shoes, roofing materials and more.

But the asbestos standards for schools are much higher than in other buildings and the EPA has strict guidelines governing its presence in the halls of learning.

Last year, funding for the inspection program in Oklahoma was cut back sharply, so it came as very welcome news that the EPA has awarded a grant of a little more than $242,000 this week for the program.

Liz McNeill, spokeswoman for the State Department of Labor, says the agency inspects 100 Oklahoma schools each year and finds possible violations of the standards in between 30 and 60 percent of the schools it inspects.

She adds that once the schools become aware, they have 100 percent compliance when it comes to getting the asbestos problems fixed.

The former Barnard Elementary School building, where demolition begins this week following a devastating fire last month, provides an example of how people live and work around asbestos for years without actually being aware and to be fair, without being exposed to any actual health risks.

Swain says people like pipefitters or machinists who worked for years without proper protection are the only ones truly likely to have suffered mesothelioma or other asbestos-related disease.

The EPA recognized the danger in the mid-1970s and began regulating businesses, requiring those protections.

As for the people living around Barnard, Swain said they wouldn't have faced any undue exposure during the fire and collapse of parts of the building, nor will they be exposed to large amounts of asbestos during the demolition of the school.

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